This week a blast of Arctic air pushed the thermometer down to single digits and wind chills to well below zero. People threw water into the air and watched it turn to snow, and Niagara Falls froze solid. These frigid temps may be a bit extreme, but it’s just this kind of cold, icy weather that we have to thank for a rare and remarkable dessert wine. Ice wine (or Eiswein as it is known in Germany and Austria and Icewine in Canada) is the golden elixir that results when grapes are left on the vine well into the winter and harvested only when they freeze. Needless to say, production is miniscule and fraught with difficulties, making these wines very rare and usually very expensive.
The practice of making wine from frozen grapes may have begun with the Romans, but documentation dates it to 1794 in Germany. For almost two centuries it remained something of an oddity until the 1960s when technological innovations allowed for easier pressing of frozen grapes. For obvious reasons it’s made only in cold climate regions. Besides Germany and Austria ice wine is now produced in Canada (Ontario and British Columbia), Michigan and New York in both the Finger Lakes region and the North Fork of Long Island.
Only high-acid grapes are used: Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Sylvaner, Gewurztraminer and Cabernet Franc. Once the freeze sets in, a team of pickers rapidly descends on the vineyard to harvest. It’s back-breaking, bone-chilling work that usually happens in the early morning hours. Harvest time depends entirely on the weather; sometimes it’ll be as early as December, but it can be as late as February. In Germany the temperature has to drop to 19.4 ° F, while in Canada it’s 17.6°F. Some years the thermometer never dips low enough (as happened in Germany in 2006 and 2011), and no eiswein at all will be produced.
Freezing the grapes is actually a means of removing the water, leaving behind rich, intense must of concentrated sugars, fruit esters and acids. Only healthy grapes are picked as any infected with Botrytis cinera (or noble rot) would have been harvested earlier and used to make either beerenauslese or trockenbeerenauslese. So there is no hint of botrytis, just a lusciously sweet wine with fresh fruit flavors.
Two reasonably priced half bottles I found were Heribert Boch’s Trittenheimer Altarchen Riesling Eiswein, from 2008, $40, 8.5% abv, and Henry of Pelham Riesling Icewine from the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario, Canada, $60, 9.5% abv.
The Heribert Boch is a true Eiswein from the Mosel region of Germany. The wine was a deep golden color, almost amber, and tasted of apple cider, ripe pear and peach. The fruit here was juicier with mouth-watering acidity. The Henry of Pelham Icewine on the other hand was strikingly pale, and the flavors of pear, apricot, and candied oranges were a little more intense and focused.
Both were delicious and would be perfect all on their own. Or you could try as I did to pair them with some salty cheese: a Zamoran (manchego), an aged Gouda and a softer, farmhouse cheese from Ireland called Ardrahan. A nice blue cheese would work well too as the salty and sweet play nicely off each other. Either way these wines show the magic that can be conjured from the cold.